Local Time

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hamas warns Abbas not to call hasty referendum

Israel moves tanks into gaza, kills 4

Compiled by Daily Star staff
Thursday, October 19, 2006


The Palestinian government on Wednesday dismissed President Mahmoud Abbas' idea for installing a temporary government of independent technocrats, as Israel widened its offensive in Gaza by sending tanks to take up positions on the Egypt-Gaza border and killing four Palestinians.

Months of negotiations between Abbas' Fatah party and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya's Hamas movement have stalled over the latter's refusal to renounce violence, agree to abide by past peace deals and to recognize Israel.

Abbas said on Tuesday he had to make a decision soon on the future of the government and that he might seek approval for any move in a referendum.

Speaking to journalists in Ramallah, Abbas said he would like to see a temporary technocratic government formed in order to give him and Hamas time to sort out their differences over a national unity Cabinet.

"A government of technocrats would be the simplest and most practical solution," Abbas said, adding that he still favored a coalition Cabinet that would end a Western embargo.

But Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad replied: "This question is not currently the order of the day ... We want a government that includes both political and technocrat forces. There is a large possibility to find a consensus on these two questions, the political and technocratic characteristics, and what this Cabinet should accept on a national and international level."

In another sign of deep divisions among the Palestinian leadership, Interior Minister Saeed Seyam warned that Hamas would consider as a "coup" any referendum on the fate of the Cabinet.

"We reject making the referendum like a bogeyman to resort to in such situations," Seyam said. "President Mahmoud Abbas has powers, yes, and he can exercise his powers within the legal limits.

"But the situation here is not about powers ... The referendum in itself would be a coup against the legitimacy this government enjoyed [through January elections]."

"There is American support for whoever wants to topple the government,'' Seyam told reporters in Cairo at the end of a tour that took him to Damascus and Tehran.

Seyam refused to say how Hamas would react to the possible referendum, but said the president should "carefully study" the consequences of any decision he would make.

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Adding to the woes of the Palestinians, Israeli tanks and infantry took up positions on the Egypt-Gaza border Wednesday for the first time since the Israeli pullout from Gaza a year ago, as the army broadened its search for arms-smuggling tunnels.

For the past four days, Israel has been warning it would intensify a nearly four-month-long offensive in Gaza.

Palestinian hospital staff said Israeli troops killed two gunmen from the governing Hamas in clashes in the town of Rafah.

In the northern Gaza Strip, residents said two more Palestinians, including a civilian, were killed by Israeli forces overnight.

The Palestinian government said the deployment around the Rafah crossing - Gaza's only link to the outside world that does not pass through Israel - was tantamount to Israeli reoccupation of the border area. But Israel played down the scale of its objectives.

"We have no intention of going back and controlling Gaza," Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Parliament. "But we are obligated to provide security for the citizens of Israel. We will not make a policy of closing our eyes to the smuggling."

Palestinian officials said troops carried out house-to-house searches and bulldozers leveled agricultural land near the border. Troops also surrounded the Rafah border terminal, where about 60 Palestinian security personnel remained, the officials said.

Israel has pounded Gaza for nearly four months since Corporal Gilad Shilat was captured and two other soldiers were killed in a cross-border raid.

Seyam said that Israel had made "no serious offer" on the release of Palestinian prisoners it holds in exchange for the captured soldier.

"Israel wants the release of the soldier and claims it would then make a goodwill gesture, but this has been rejected by those who have captured the soldier," Seyam said, calling on "all Arab mediators" to give guarantees for an eventual prisoner swap.

Seyam also said he was aware that arms shipment were entering the Gaza Strip for Abbas' presidential guard force.

"We do not know the nature and the source of these arms," he said, when asked whether Israel and the United States were helping Abbas strengthen his security body. - Agencies

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